A Different View on Teacher Education

You don’t have to do much digging to see that education, in general, and teacher education, specifically is experiencing some troubling times. In my current state of North Carolina, the goal appears to be to destroy education and take teacher education down in the process. I’ve lived here for 11 years now. During most of this time, the pay for public school teachers has been frozen, and we’re always ranked near the bottom in terms of teacher salaries. We don’t even offer pay raises anymore for teachers who earn their masters degrees – a move that effectively slashed enrollment in masters programs because, duh.  Teachers are leaving the profession in droves here, and it’s not surprising. Some retire. Some change professions. Some move to Texas.

FYI: I taught 6th grade in the Alief Independent School District in Houston once upon a time. It was a truly lovely district that was very functional. Yeah, it had it’s issues, but in my experience the people who ran it truly cared about teachers, students, and families, and it showed in the policies they put in place. 

To be fair, North Carolina, and others, have done their share of putting policies in place that appear to be designed to deprofessionalize teachers and run them out of town. Across the nation, teacher shortages are popping up, and it’s not something that we can ignore. These shortages happen for good reason – be it salary, the lack of raises, or even the crazy amounts of testing we now subject students to on a regular basis. If Universities want to help address the issue, we cannot do so in a vacuum. We are always at the mercy of policy. Even the best teacher education programs can be destroyed by bad politics.

Having acknowledged all this, I want to set up an argument for how we could rethink teacher education programs IF policy makers decided they wanted to actually make public education work. Because one of the long-standing issues we have in teacher education, and public school teaching in general, is how to get a more diverse group of individuals to become teachers. Now, that’s likely not going to happen as long as these miserable policies keep being made. But if we could return to a more reasonable and sane approach to education, then I think we can start (and should) start making a dent in creating a more diverse teaching force.

What Constitutes a More Diverse Teaching Force?

On the surface, we need a teaching force that has more diversity in race, gender, and ethnicity. For a long time now, we have discussed and recognized that the teaching workforce (predominately white and female) does not reflect the students’ they teach. This is not to say that white women should not be teachers. They should. But students need to interact with teachers from a wide range of backgrounds during their K-12 career.

But I want to move beyond the discussion of diversity in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity and push us towards some areas I don’t really hear in these discussions: academic diversity and economic diversity.

Academic Diversity

I teach at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Our undergraduate teacher education program is dead at this point (we’ve moved to an MAT model), but I did teach some in it when it was around. UNC-CH is not an easy institution to get into. Go here to see the admission stats for students who enrolled in Fall 2015. While you will notice that UNC-CH is predominately white (gender is pretty equally distributed), you will also notice that 77% of them were in the top 10% of their high school graduating class.

Now, what I found as a struggle when working in our undergraduate teacher education program was trying to help students understand what it would be like to work with kids who had academic difficulties.  How do you help someone, who school came pretty easily too, see through the eyes of someone who repeatedly has difficulties in one or more subject areas? How do you help students, who reading comes easily too, understand what it means to work with kids who have a history of reading difficulties or who have acquired negative labels about themselves as readers in school?

If you have an answer, please, tell me. I can’t seem to figure it out.

I think that students’ with strong academic backgrounds AND who had an overall positive experience in school are suited for teaching in particular kinds of places – and those places would be where the students and families match their own backgrounds. Nothing wrong with that.

However, what we need are excellent teachers who understand what it means to struggle in school and can, therefore, be emphatic about working with students who need real help developing academically. But, from what I can tell, this is not what we do. What we tend to do is go after identifying the best and brightest  – which, from what I can tell, translates down into GPA.

But let’s think about this for a moment. What does GPA really tell us? It tells us something, potentially, about you as a student at the time you took the course. What it doesn’t tell us is what happened after the course. I remember when I was taking statistics courses for my Ph.D. Do you know how well I did? About a C. But do you know how well I understood the material after the course was over? Significantly better. My understanding of complex concepts grew better over time as I got to relearn them and apply them over and over again. That grade? It was just a snapshot at a moment in time. It didn’t define me as a person or what I had truly learned.

So here’s what I’m saying: We need to start going after people who have a history of academic difficulties but who have the passion and drive to become great teachers. These are the teachers who, I think, will be more likely to understand the needs to students who truly struggle because they have lived it themselves.

Economic Diversity

My second point about how we should be thinking about teacher recruitment is about economic diversity. If you want teachers who understand how to work with children who live in poverty, then you have to identify teachers who have some experience with poverty. It could be that they grew up in poverty. It could be that they have relatives in poverty or have spent time in impoverished areas. There’s not one answer here. But if you have no understanding of poverty – beyond reading books and seeing it on television – then how do you think you can support students who live in poverty? How do you help beginning teachers develop deep understandings about poverty if they have no personal interactions with it?

What this means is that we need to be identifying and growing teachers from the communities they have lived in. This doesn’t mean that the only teachers in a community are the ones who grew up there. That’s not going to be possible. What it means is that we need to be providing opportunities for individuals to become teachers who otherwise might not see themselves as such.

Rethinking Teacher Education

Right now, the standard path to becoming a classroom teacher is a four year degree. Usually two years of that is spent taking classes in education. In some places, students spend an entire two years taking nothing but education classes. In others (like UNC-CH), it is a blend of education and university required courses outside of education. Some models work better at preparing teachers than others (I didn’t find the one at my institution to be particularly good; it was very thin on content teachers needed to be prepared to teach).

So, how do we do this? How do we think about diversifying teachers and in the ways I have discussed? Well, at the moment, I’m stuck. The only idea I feel I can play with is connecting this to charter schools. Here’s why –

Imagine for a moment that one route to becoming a teacher required an associates degree (which could be obtained through a community college – thus also affordable) in education.  From there, you would enter a four year teaching academy.

Now, at this point, I’m really just playing with ideas here. Nothing is set in stone, and there are all sorts of possibilities.

The idea is that when you leave the academy you would have a masters in education. However, you are also not going full time for four years without a job or pay. However, you do spend four years learning how to be an educator, and, in part, that requires you to be embedded within a school or even multiple schools. I would imagine by Year Three a student would be able to take on a job as a classroom teacher or, perhaps even better, have two teachers assigned to the same classroom.

So why do I say that I can currently only envision this kind of thing happening in conjunction with charter schools? Because charter schools typically have more freedom than public schools. Imagine if you had a cohort of charter schools working together utilizing this model. Identify and recruit potential teachers from the general area. Partner with community colleges, and then develop a teacher academy to help support people as they become teachers.

It’s a thought. I’m putting it out there. If you have responses or ideas or even want to make it happen, let me know.


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